(Welcome to Videodrome. A monthly column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema — from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)

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While Halloween goes hand in hand with horror, perhaps nothing captures the playfully gruesome spirit of the season quite like a musical horror comedy.

But blending laughter, tunes and good old-fashioned human slaughter is not an easy trick to pull off—nor are there many treats in this underserved genre. Beyond Sweeney Todd and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fans face the prospect of quenching their music-horror cravings with tremendous schlock stupidity like Hillbillys in a Haunted House or Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Thankfully, a recent high definition update of Brian De Palma’s wild glam-goth spectacle Phantom of the Paradise makes a worthy addition to this exclusive category, and a fine choice for your haunted harvest viewing pleasure.

The plot focuses on Winslow Leach (William Finley) an idealistic but talented young composer who is hoodwinked by the shadowy music mogul Swan, framed for drug crimes and imprisoned, then maimed, disfigured and forgotten. Re-emerging as the Phantom, he stalks the nooks and crannies of Swan’s Paradise Theater sabotaging sets and offing those who defy his musical aesthetic, before being tricked into writing a magnum opus for his muse, the beautiful, vocally endowed Phoenix (played by Jessica Harper, later of Suspiria fame).

Subbing in rock ‘n roll and a scurrilous music industry backdrop, the film offers a remix on Phantom of the Opera, while stitching references from works such as Doctor Faustus and Psycho together with themes from classical Gothic horror and high show biz satire.

Culminating in a bloody, campy, cheap effects-driven cacophony of electric guitar haze, dancing, screaming and 70s fashion, Phantom cuts a visually arresting exploration of the corrupt and creepy, with a soundtrack that sticks in your head. It’s also early evidence of the budding talent and filmmaking passion of De Palma, who hints at some of his later, bloodier work (Scarface, Carrie) while demonstrating heart and a sense of humor.

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Of course, as can be expected from a B-movie of this era, the acting is unremarkable. From a technical standpoint, the film’s low budget nature is evident throughout. But no matter. The real highlight is a bizarre and captivating mix of songs and performances that artfully aids and abets the Phantom’s mad, music-fueled quest for vengeance.

Lou-Reed-Velvet-Underground-the-velvet-underground-25381052-381-576In a few weeks, a six-disc box set celebrating the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third LP will hit shelves. The main draw is the inclusion of The Matrix Tapes — long-awaited, holy grail live recordings from 1969 which we covered a little while back. Somewhat disappointingly, however, is the lack of studio outtakes from The Velvet Underground sessions. Either they don’t exist or were deemed unworthy of release.

I’d always hoped that lurking in the archives there might be a demo of “Candy Says” with its composer, Lou Reed, on lead vocals. Bassist Doug Yule sings lead on the released version — and does a fine job with it (especially considering he had been in the band just a few weeks when it was recorded). But it would certainly be interesting to hear Lou tackle one of his masterpieces. For some reason, he always kept his distance from it; even when he added it to setlists in the 2000s, Antony Hegarty handled the vocal duties.

But for the song’s live debut in late 1968, Lou took the lead on “Candy Says.” Like so many VU audience tapes, the recording quality leaves plenty to be desired, but turn it up, lean in and you’ll hear one of the greatest songwriters of all time delivering a classic in all its fragile, gorgeous glory. Do-do-wah. words / t wilcox

 The Velvet Underground :: Candy Says (Boston, December 12, 1968)

Previously: The Velvet Underground :: Guess I’m Falling In Love, Live 1967

5.03.25 PM

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Back from the dead.

Trick Or Treat, Volume 9 (A Vintage Halloween Mixtape)

Trick Or Treat, Volume 8 (A Vintage Halloween Mixtape)

Trick Or Treat, Volume 7 (A Vintage Halloween Mixtape)

david_blue-these_23_days_in_septemberSurfacing in the 60s in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene alongside the likes Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Eric Anderson was a singer who, if not for his close friendship with the legendary folk hero, you would think was just straight-up copying Dylan.

The story goes that in the early 60s David Blue (under his birthname, David Cohen) appeared on a folk compilation singing old-timey songs that subsequently got him signed to Elektra records. By this time, Dylan had gone electric and when Blue entered the studio to record his first album, his main influence was no longer traditional folk music but now the rich electric keyboards, guitars and organs of the mid-60s folk-rock sound. So basically David Blue’s first two records could be featured in a collection titled Highway Blonde Revisited. But it would be impetuous to say they are void of merit. In the liner notes of Blue’s 1966 self-titled debut Richie Unterberger recalls his interview with the album’s producer, Arthur Gorson:

“I guess that was the sound of the moment that he was looking for,” shrugs Gorson when asked about the record’s strong resemblance to mid-1960s Dylan. “It was a tough thing for [David], ’cause that’s what he knew.” It couldn’t have been any easier when, according to Gorson, “Dylan would come to the studio and taunt David during the making of the album.”

David Blue :: Grand Hotel

Two years later “Grand Hotel” was re-crafted for Blue’s sophomore album, These 23 Days of September, adding more orchestration and a little jingle-jangle. words / p dufrene

David Blue :: The Grand Hotel

Lux Interior: inter-dimensional, pan-sexual, time-traveling rock & roll alien. And radio host. As Halloween draws nigh we’re revving up for our annual airing of The Purple Knif Show, the one-off radio program hosted by Lux in 1984 deep in the bowels of Hollywood. As master of ceremonies, Lux runs through his personal archives spinning the weird ranging from rockabilly and garage to early punk, campy novelty and exotica. His bag of tricks was the best. So go ahead, “get out your magic decoder rings, boys and girls…” Trick or treat.

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“You can’t be wise and in love at the same time.” Bob Dylan said that. It’s probably not true. Not forever, at least. But for the rational — let’s say for the self-contained — the process of falling in love unexpectedly confronts years of hard-won habits and mindsets. Those opening moments, when the plane is off the ground and the windowshade is opened for the first time and the ground suddenly appears so far below, will give you vertigo. Never mind, for the moment, the destination or even the journey itself. Forget not looking back; don’t look down.

Or do. Elisa Ambrogio, frontwoman of Connecticut no-wavers Magik Markers, begins The Immoralist with a survey from the air. Over fluttering kickdrum and chiming major chords, she confesses a love that overwhelms her rationality. Love has her breaking wishbones and wishing on stars. “I don’t see ghosts/I don’t believe in thirteen,” she sings by way of apology, “But I get superstitious when it comes to you and me.”

It’s a precise, complex portrait, a demonstration of the singer’s realizing that she’s lost herself in another person. Whether the love is requited isn’t really the point here; recognizing that your identity has been subsumed into that of another is enough. It’s delivered from beneath a blanket of reverb and with an air of fear and melancholy, but what makes it great — what makes it almost perversely un-rock ‘n’ roll — is the way Ambrogio rolls up the ends of that chorus line, the resolution she puts on the “you and me,” and the major chords that are struck from the accompanying piano with a kind of pleased defiance. When she does it again in the next song, “Reservoir,” singing as she does of being arm-in-arm with her beloved and gently promising “I don’t want this with no one else,” it’s enough to make you stop what you’re doing and whistle in admiration.

And it’s not Ambrogio’s only trick. She carries her howling guitar over from Magik Markers, but here it’s subdued, pressed and molded into the gaps in her songs. She paints “Kyrie” with blobs of kickdrum and broad brushes of cello, then lets that guitar shatter the scene like dry and crackling paint. She drops her voice into a Kim Gordon pout in the propulsive “Stopped Clock,” then uses it to drawl out the opening lines of “Clarinet Queen,” where detail stands in for story (“Second chair clarinet queen/Touches her tongue to her reed”). Dusky melancholy moments like these fall on The Immoralist like a fine dust, but the shaking of Ambrogio’s guitar keeps it from gathering and obscuring the handiwork beneath.

That’s a bit florid. I know. But Ambrogio’s talent for subtlety, her patience with her own storytelling, is arresting. Love here is thoroughly alive and deeply gut-wrenching. Memories are mourned and celebrated in equal measure; harmony lives alongside dissonance. There’s no pixie dust or puppy sounds, no super-sweet sap. It’s refreshing and mildly threatening, and it’s the farther thing from twee: it’s the truth. words / m garner

Thurston-Moore-The-Best-DayThurston Moore’s solo records have always been an interesting barometer to his state of mind outside of Sonic Youth. Psychic Hearts, his solo debut, was the most Sonic Youth of any of his solo albums, but that was also 1995, a time when his main gig was riding some of its highest commercial presence. It may not have made sense to deviate too much from the norm, especially with videos on MTV.

But by the time he returned with another proper solo album, it was 2007 and Sonic Youth was something different. 2011’s Demolished Thoughts was gorgeously fragile and had more in common with a singer-songwriter turn for a frontman than a natural extension of his band. And then everything came crashing down. His divorce from wife and long-time band mate Kim Gordon did away with Sonic Youth, he started a new band, Chelsea Light Moving, and put his foot in his mouth a few times in the press. And now his first solo record since before all of that sounds an awful lot like a late period Sonic Youth album. And it makes perfect sense.

With the muscularity of Rather Ripped crossed with the long-running, wandering feel of Murray Street, The Best Day is a huge gift for fans of that time in the band’s history. Opening tracks “Speak to the Wild” and “Forevermore” take up 20 of the 50 minutes of the album. It’s a testament to the way that Moore has always been able to make long songs like that feel engaging, hypnotic and not the cardinal sin of such things, boring. Albums in the 50 to 80 minute range rarely have these few number of tracks anymore, but I always get a little excited when I see that kind of tracklisting. It’s one of the reasons why Murray Street remains one of my top three Sonic Youth albums : compactness that feels wide in scope. The Best Day has that same quality.

And there’s something different in Moore’s voice this time around, too. His delivery hasn’t changed that dramatically – a career built on a dryly disaffected voice that sounds tailor made to deliver small bursts of manic truth isn’t going to disappear overnight. But the title track displays some of the most active singing Moore has done in some time, the ends of lines quickly vibrating. Then the end of the song has a small instrumental section that sounds like a beefed up rendition of something off of a Fairport Convention album. It’s breathtaking in that it sounds like the man who is almost the epitome of the music-historian-slash-geek-turned-musician really letting that knowledge loose and also letting it find a natural home amongst a sound he has found and refined over nearly 35 years of recording.

The problem with these types of records is that there is no room for filler. This isn’t an album structure built to let the minor throw-aways make the bangers stand out in relief. This is the definition of an album that relies on all its parts to build a whole and The Best Day does just that. It closes with one of its best songs – not an easy title to win on this album – “Germs Burn.” It spirals out into chaos, coming back to chugging riffs and going out on a squall of noise, all while Moore gives a taut, chant-shout vocal that hovers above it all. It’s a relatively quick and sudden finish to a record that takes its time luring you in, but it seems only natural and fitting. There’s an impish grin that underlies all of this – a grin that knows it still has some relevant mischief to unspool. words / j neas

Thurston Moore :: The Best Day

Chris-Forsyth-The-Solar-Motel-Band-Intensity-Ghost_535_536_c1After releasing the masterful Solar Motel last year, guitarist Chris Forsyth put together a group to take the LP to the stage. Pretty quickly, it became clear that the Solar Motel Band was one of the most powerful ensembles out there, finding the fertile middle ground between the razor sharp dynamics of Television with the cosmic leanings of the Dead. Dig the Solar Live Record Store Day release from earlier this year for a demonstration of the group’s potent onstage chemistry.

The new Intensity Ghost is Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band’s studio debut and it crackles with energy. It’s pure, unadulterated guitar heaven – classic rock remade. Unlike the extended song suite of Solar Motel, the album is made up of five distinct songs, each one showing off the virtuosic and versatile skills of Forsyth, bassist Peter Kerlin, guitarist Paul Sukeena (Spacin’), and drummer Steven Urgo (ex-The War on Drugs), augmented by the subtle colorings of keyboardist Shawn Hansen.

The interplay between the musicians on Intensity Ghost is intoxicating; check out the 10 minute thrill-ride opener, “The Ballad of Freer Hollow,” as it goes from a Richard-Thompson-jamming-with-The-Who vibe to a gorgeous feedback drone, before snapping back for a thunderous finish. From there, the slide-guitar-fueled, morphine-drip boogie of “Yellow Square” is reminiscent of Exile-era Rolling Stones at their most menacing. The “Marquee Moon”-inspired descending guitar line of “I Ain’t Waiting” shows that Forsyth can do high drama with the best of them. The title track kicks off with a vicious, No Wave-y riff but segues beautifully into a ragged and glorious Crazy Horse lurch. Finally, the elegiac “Paris Song” conjures up the ghost of Lou Reed and Robert Quine’s majestically entangled guitars. Like Uncle Lou always said: “You can’t beat two guitars, bass and drums.” words / t wilcox

MV-FRONTonlyModern Vices describe their sound as “dirty doo-wop,” but don’t get too confused. These Chicago-based rockers — vocalist Alex Rebek, bassist Miles Kalchik, drummer Patrick Hennessey, and guitarists Peter Scoville and Thomas Peters – owe more to the heritage of the Modern Lovers and the Velvet Underground than the group harmonies of the Del-Vikings or the Flamingos. In the case of Modern Vices, the doo-wop tag is more an abstraction, a descriptive nod to the prevailing mood that dominates their self-titled debut for Autumn Tone. Even at their hardest, on songs like “Cheap Style” and “Taller in the Sunshine,” there’s a tender, lovelorn spirit hovering over Rebek’s bathed-in-reverb vocals. Like Hamilton Leithauser before him, the young front man ditches the detached persona that plagued indie rock through much of the ‘Aughts, instead going all in, crooning with crazed passion and force, like Sinatra or Bobby Darin fronting a punk band.

Sonically indebted to the tangled rock of Television and the sharp pop of the Smiths, the album is a blur of guitars and drums, and occasionally Rebek sounds as if he’s climbing to get out from under it all, but his straining only makes lines like “Let the night begin/let it never end” all the more compelling. And when the band does overtly embrace their R&B influences, like on the smoldering “Smoke Rings” or closing epic “Baby,” they indicate that that whole doo-wop thing kind of transcends stylistic concerns, tilting toward universal themes and concerns: quick glances, heavy breaths, and broken hearts. words / j woodbury

Modern Vices :: Pleasure Gun
Modern Vices :: Cheap Style